Anti-CAA/NRC: How tea unites the protesters

Food can be divisive on Twitter, but at Shaheen Bagh, and other protest sites across India, shared meals strengthen bonds, and communities

The smell of freshly brewed tea is in the air at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh. An old man pushes a cart of guavas past us. “₹10 a kilo,” he announces. Surprised by the low price, we buy a batch and pay him a little more. He shakes his head and returns the excess cash — this isn’t all about business.

This is about solidarity. Unity is the overriding sentiment here, solidified through shared meals of omelettes, biryani, puri-sabzi and tea.

For nearly two months, the women of Shaheen Bagh have been sitting inside a tent at one end of G. D. Birla Marg, in protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC).

The protesters — men, women and children — occupy most of the highway, their numbers extending up to 10,000 or more on certain days. Feeding this mighty crowd is not an easy task, but this community-led agitation has organised itself for the purpose.

“Every day, we have well-wishers coming up to the stage, and asking us what the situation is like for tonight’s dinner, or tomorrow’s lunch, and then we tell them how many plates we need, and how many have been arranged so far,” says Hena Ahmed, a volunteer. People from the area arrange these meals, either preparing small batches in their households, or mostly, coordinating with restaurants.

Anti-CAA/NRC: How tea unites the protesters

Some women are fasting as a way of protest, and they break their fast in the evening with samosas and chai. Mealtimes are hectic for the volunteers, they move in and out of the tent, making sure everyone has had something to eat. Outside, men line up to receive plates of puri and aloo.

“One person can’t feed everyone here, so we have mixed items — some get biryani, some pulao. Our Sikh brothers have also set up a langar here,” says Humera Sayad, another volunteer. The langar was set up by a farmer’s union from Punjab.

“All of us take up different responsibilities, but it’s not like one person will permanently be doing one job. If I get tired, somebody else will take over,” says Humera.

There is an unofficial ‘kitchen department’ to arrange for the food, “but if there are packets of biscuits or such smaller items, whoever is around will distribute them.”

The self-sustaining, grassroots nature of the protests at Shaheen Bagh has caught the nation’s imagination, and when people from Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Punjab, West Bengal and other states come here, they often bring food. So much so that on stage, a volunteer has to explain to the protesters, “If you want to get food, please inform us first so that we can arrange for its distribution!”

Silent helpers

It is 6 p.m. on a Thursday in Mumbai’s Nagpada area. The women hold up placards, even as other protesters finish evening namaaz (prayers). Though a younger and smaller protest than that at Shaheen Bagh, this, too, is dependent on the kindness and solidarity of strangers.

“There are small-business owners who donate some food items and water bottles for the protesters, who have been sitting here for more than nine days. We don’t have any funding from any organisation,” says Sayeed Sultan, a volunteer.

These include businessmen like Aarif Khan and Mahesh Solanki, who are unable to participate in the protest, and hence do their bit by donating sandwiches, fruitcake, samosas and water bottles in bulk. “Most of the people who donate food to the protesters do not wish to be named,” says Sultan.

Anti-CAA/NRC: How tea unites the protesters

Another homemaker, who only identifies herself as a resident of Wadala, brought 25 packets of biscuits for the protesters.

“I have three children who go to a primary school and my husband works as an auto rickshaw driver. It is difficult for me to manage household chores, but keeping this alive is very important,” she says on condition of anonymity. She adds that her children accompany her here post-school, and she helps them with their homework there.

Household support

At Lucknow’s iconic Husainabad Clock Tower aka Ghanta Ghar, the crowd primarily comprises homemakers shuttling between their familial duties and this venue.

Numbers swell to about 5,000 between noon and 10 p.m. each day. At least 150-odd protesters stay the night, dividing themselves in batches so that the women can take turns staying at home with their families.

The people who want to make the time to be there but cannot, get hold of bawarchis to cook fresh food like puri-chole in bulk for those sitting in. This is usually done by about eight to 10 neighbourhood households joining hands — and funds — at a time, says social worker Sumaiya Rana.

“It is not just homemakers and families who help. On most nights, some hotels and restaurants nearby [who prefer to remain unnamed] pack whatever food is left at the end of their day and send it over.”

This usually ranges from Lucknowi biryani to keema and shami kebab, in whatever quantity these restaurateurs can muster for the day. “Sometimes, there is matar pulao for the vegetarians. And every evening, without fail, someone or the other manages to bring samosas and tea for about 2,000 people,” adds Rana.

There is a reason the food is prepared elsewhere — the clock tower is a historic monument, under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India. Cooking within the premises is prohibited, as is the consumption of open, unpacked food.

“So the food is usually brought in packets: about two or three puris in each pack, along with some sabzi or chole,” she says.

Since many of the protesters are mothers who cannot leave their little ones at home, there are chocolate bars and biscuit packets for the children. However, it is the tea that comes in most handy, particularly at night when temperatures drop to about two or three degrees Celsius.

“The days, thankfully, are getting sunnier,” says Rana.

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Printable version | Apr 4, 2020 9:45:41 PM |

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